new study released by the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) reported that American adults drink alcoholic
beverages in moderation.
Calories from alcohol, the study
concludes, make up 5 percent of the total calories consumed by
American adults. What's more, few Americans consume alcohol on a
“On any given day, almost one-third of men and 18% of women aged
20 and over consume alcoholic beverages,” the report concludes.
That means just one in four Americans consume alcohol on any given
And the group the report indicates as ingesting the largest
amount of calories from alcohol—men aged 20-39—consume only 174
calories per day (8 percent of total average calories) from alcohol
beverages. That’s fewer calories than two average light beers.
In spite of these modest totals, the study authors appear to be
positioning their work as an important warning against alcohol
“I think sometimes people forget completely that alcoholic
beverages have calories,” lead study author and
public-health theologist Samara Joy Nielsen
told The New York Times.
The study authors are also explicit in linking alcohol to
soda—that other scourge of public-health activists—at least in
terms of the calories it contributes to Americans’ diets.
“We've been focusing on sugar-sweetened beverages,” said Cynthia
Ogden, one of the study’s authors who, like Nielsen, has been
just that. “This is something new.”
But if the focus of these particular researchers is new, little
in their research contributes any new knowledge.
The CDC alcohol study, "Calories Consumed From Alcoholic
Beverages by U.S. Adults, 2007–2010," uses data from the agency’s
National Health and
Nutrition Examination Survey, which “combines interviews and
The most comprehensive source I’ve come across (and referred to
for uncovering what Americans are eating and drinking—including
alcohol—is the USDA’s
Dietary Guidelines for Americans, last updated in 2010. And if
this CDC alcohol study doesn’t appear so new, perhaps it’s because
the “new” study cites the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for
Americans in nearly half (43 percent) of its footnotes.
Not surprisingly, the two studies’ conclusions about how many
calories Americans consume from alcohol are also nearly identical.
USDA data put the number at 106 calories from alcohol (see Table
2-2 on page 12). The CDC study’s total is similar but slightly
While the USDA study concludes that “alcoholic beverages are a
major calorie source for adults,” the CDC calls them “a top
contributor to caloric intake.”
One place where the studies diverge—and where the CDC authors
don't address what I see as a key issue—is the fact that the
average alcohol consumption patterns their research reveal actually
mirror longstanding USDA recommendations.
“If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation—up
to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men—and
only by adults of legal drinking age,” reports the USDA in the same
Dietary Guidelines for Americans that the CDC researchers
know so well. “Moderate evidence suggests that moderate drinking of
alcoholic beverages is not associated with weight gain.”
Remember, even the group of heaviest drinkers the CDC
reported—men aged 20-39—consume on average less than the equivalent
of two typical light beers worth of calories on any given day.
In spite of the fact alcohol consumption appears to be both
moderate and in line with the government's own recommendations,
some activists have already begun seizing on the CDC study as a
possible trigger for future regulations to limit alcohol intake.
And they're suggesting government strategies to combat soda
consumption as a model.
“In New York City, it was smart to start with sugary drinks,”
says Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public
Interest, while stamping out my own meager
and short-lived hope that CSPI was embracing a new style of
advocacy. “Let’s see how it goes and then think about next
I shudder to think where those next steps might take us.
The question activists used
to ask was, “Is soda the new tobacco?” Clearly, the answer to
that question was and is, “No.” But the new question the CDC
research appears positioned to pose is whether alcohol is the new